New bill on conserving historic buildings collapses amid wave of criticism

It has been years in the making and the subject of protracted discussions, but this week one of the ministry of culture’s main flagship legislative proposals hit the buffers with a blunt rejection in the lower house of parliament. The ministry was aghast but some conservation groups welcomed the demise of the proposed new law aimed at protecting historic buildings.

Daniel Herman, photo: Filip JandourekDaniel Herman, photo: Filip Jandourek The basic law covering the protection of historical buildings in the Czech Republic belongs to a different era and different country – the closing years of the communist regime of former Czechoslovakia. Of course, the basic law has been added to with a series of amendments going back over 30 years. But the many tag- ons have created a rather opaque and unwieldy final structure. For years critics have said that the law should be remade on new foundations rather than further extensions added on.

Piloting that bill onto the books has been one of the main missions of the culture ministry since the government approved the measure back in 2015. But those plans collapsed this week when a vote to bury the bill was passed in the lower house with even government lawmakers coming out against it. Minister of Culture Daniel Herman did not hide his dismay and anger:

"I must say that it’s a surprise for me that the proposal to refuse this was passed by two votes. This is a victory in all likelihood for lobbying and political manoeuvring. The bill was the result of an enormous amount of work and discussion. We were prepared to accept a series of amendments, some of which were really interesting. Unfortunately, as I said, it seems that manoeuvring and lobbying has won out. However, the care of historic monuments is not threatened, that’s important to know."

The minister said the bill offered a series of improvements compared with the current situation.

Illustrative photo: Barbora NěmcováIllustrative photo: Barbora Němcová "It should have above all helped the owners of historic buildings. It took account of buildings in conservation and protected areas. There was also a sanctions procedure built in for the owners of buildings who failed to take proper care of them and by their neglect spoil the look of our towns and districts. It was aligned with the civil code, building laws and European norms. All that is at the moment is rather clumsily combined as a result of a sort of by-passes resulted from a series of amendments. "

But the bill had raised many hackles, including among conservation groups keeping a close eye on the culture ministry’s performance. One of the main critics was the Association for the Protection and Development of the Czech Cultural Heritage (ASORKD). Marie Švábová is one of its deputy presidents:

"The proposed law just dealt with administrative procedures about how to approve projects and the relations between various institutions concerned and citizens. Above all, it did not protect the most precious aspect of our cultural heritage, our historic towns. It treated individual buildings as if they were isolated artefacts. It did not at all take into account that an essential aspect of such towns is the setting in which they are found."